***This is part 7 of my “Everyday I’m Trufflin’” trip report detailing a recent European road trip which started in Zurich, Switzerland and ended in Piedmont, Italy***
2. British Airways Business Class San Francisco to Zurich
3. Zurich Marriott Hotel
4. Eating Zurich – Sausage, Fondue, and Christmas Markets
5. Eating Milan – Shopping, Cathedrals and Pizza
6. Eating Piedmont, Italy – Truffles, Wine, and More Truffles
7. My Thanksgiving Day Truffle Hunting Adventure in Piedmont, Italy
8. British Airways Business Class Zurich to San Francisco
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times to travel internationally, but the trade-off is not being home to enjoy one of the most gluttonous holidays of the year, which traditionally involves chowing down on turkey and pumpkin pie. But somehow we were able to bring that holiday spirit with us to Italy, and in fact, this would go down as one of the most memorable Thanksgivings ever. Just instead of turkey, this year I’d be stuffing my face with truffles and pasta.
To fully experience the white truffle season in Piedmont, we didn’t want to just eat truffles at restaurants. We wanted to actually find them, and to do that we needed to get paired up with a truffle dog. We booked a half-day tour with Piedmont Food and Wine tours and the itinerary we selected included a cooking class which would be followed by a truffle hunt.
We met up with our guide and translator, Maria, at the train station and followed her into the small town of Mombercelli. There, we were introduced to Gino and Larisa, the proprietors of a small family-owned winery, who would be graciously hosting us in their home that day.
To be honest, we didn’t really know what to expect from this tour, but the vibe from the start was great. It truly felt like we had been adopted into an Italian family’s home, which was only fitting, since after all it was Thanksgiving Day.
We threw on some aprons and started with the cooking portion of the tour. Today, we’d be making traditional tajarin pasta.
The group’s competitive juices started flowing, and we immediately started trash talking about who could make the best pasta. Then we realized that all of our pasta would ultimately be thrown together into one huge pot.
We channeled our inner Aziz Ansari’s and spent the next hour kneading, rolling, and cutting the pasta.
And here was the finished product.
Afterwards it was time for our truffle hunting adventure. We threw on our coats and ventured into the nearby woods with Gino and his dog, Bilbo. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the experience was learning about the entire truffle hunting process.
Gino shared stories about how he started training Bilbo as a puppy, and the first step was getting him to recognize the smell of truffles. To do that, Gino would actually bury gorgonzola cheese in the woods, and then take Bilbo out to find it.
But after finding the cheese, Bilbo’s natural instinct was to violently dig in the dirt and then try and eat it. The toughest part of the training was teaching Bilbo to signal when he found the cheese, and then to gently dig for it. Pigs are no longer used for this reason, since it is nearly impossible to train them to not eat the truffles, and they would even bite the owner’s fingers if they tried to stop them.
It was fun to watch Bilbo work – he would run around and sniff everything in sight, and bark at Gino to signal if he had found something. Bilbo would start to dig, and Gino would run over to take over the digging to ensure that the truffle wasn’t damaged.
Gino also shared stories about how cutthroat the truffle hunting business could be. It was actually quite common for people to use poison to kill off each other’s dogs, often hiding it in raw meat or mayonnaise, and that’s the reason that he kept a muzzle on Bilbo while we were out. One of Gino’s previous dogs had actually fallen victim to poisoning, and you could tell that it still made him emotional to think about it.
It’s a process that included a lot of false positives, but I still remember the excitement when we found our first one, almost as if we had struck gold!
During the truffle harvest season, Gino would actually go out several times per day to maximize his chances, since the window when truffles ripened and were detectable could be as short as a matter of hours.
After plucking our first truffle from the dirt, my wife couldn’t stop smelling it.
And with continued patience over the next couple hours, we were ultimately able to score a couple more truffles. We went back to the house and continued to admire our harvest for the day.
The rest of the afternoon was spent around the dinner table and next to the fire, eating and drinking as a group. While we had contributed to today’s meal by helping to make the pasta, Larisa cooked up a feast that included several more dishes, starting with this delicious souffle.
Next up was the main course, our fresh tajarin pasta. Since we’d be covering them with white truffles, the pasta was just lightly coated in olive oil in order to preserve the truffle flavor.
It doesn’t get much better than homemade pasta, covered with white truffles that we found ourselves just hours earlier.
For dessert, we had a semifreddo with hazelnut chocolate sauce.
Gino kept the wine coming throughout the meal, and after dinner we cozied up next to the fire and cracked open some fresh walnuts and hazelnuts.
Even though we had already gone though several bottles of Gino’s wine, he wasn’t going to let us off that easily. We headed downstairs to his cellar, where we also tasted straight from the barrel. It was fun to check out all the vintage bottles that he had laying around.
At this point we had been eating and drinking for the past several hours, and the festivities even continued on into the evening, as we visited the winery where Maria worked for even more wine tasting.
Looking back, the combination of the food, friends, and the unique truffle hunting experience made this a Thanksgiving to truly remember, and I wouldn’t have traded it in for all the turkey and pumpkin pie in the world.